8 Tips for Writing Authentic Historical Mysteries
So, you want to write a historical mystery. You want it to be authentic and meticulously-researched enough to please the pickiest pedants. But dammit, Jim, you’re a novelist, not a historian! Where do you start?
I have no idea. Or at least, I didn’t when I sat down to write Murder on Millionaires’ Row, a mystery set in Gilded Age New York. I’d never written historical fiction before. I cut my teeth writing fantasy, so while I was used to some light research on things like medieval architecture and technology, nothing I’d tackled up to that point prepared me for the rigours of setting my novel in a real place and time—let alone one as well-documented, and well-loved, as New York City.
But somehow, I blundered through, and two novels and half a dozen convention panels later, while I still wouldn’t consider myself an expert, I have accumulated a few tips and tricks for making your historical novel as accurate, authentic, and immersive as it can possibly be.
I’m going to skip the obvious ones – nonfiction books about the era, movies and television, visiting historical sites and so forth – and go straight to a few that might get overlooked.
1. Pick a setting you’re passionate about. It’s always a good idea to write what you love, but when it comes to historical fiction, you’re going to need that passion to sustain you through many long hours of research. Ideally, you have such a nerd crush on your setting that background reading doesn’t even feel like work.
2. Nose through the newspaper. Even if you don’t plan to include a specific historical event, browsing through local newspapers is a great way to get a feel for the day-to-day concerns of people living at that time, as well as the overall historical and political context. Since we’re talking historical mystery here, stories about crime are especially helpful. They give you a sense of what sorts of nefarious deeds the baddies of the day were up to, as well as helpful tidbits about policing and the justice system. Don’t pass over the advertisements, either. They’ll teach you a lot about what household items were in use, complete with brand names. Little details like that—what your heroine might find lying around her kitchen, say, or in her medicine cabinet—add wonderful texture.
3. Read autobiographies and memoirs. This is obviously important if you’re writing about real-life historical figures, but even if you aren’t, autobiographies and memoirs and a great way to get a feel for what it was like for people living in that time. What they worried about, how they spoke and wrote, who was important to them in their communities. Chances are you’ll find yourself drawing upon some of their experiences, however mundane.
4. Curl up with a good novel. Nonfiction is well and good, but I’m convinced there’s no better way to learn about the little things—etiquette, transport, clothing, food, dialect—than reading novels written in the era you’re writing about. Be careful with class and geography, though. If you’re writing about a housemaid in New York City, Madame Bovary is only going to get you so far.
5. Zoom out. Don’t forget to take account of the major social and technological developments of the day. For example, if you’re writing about 1870s America, the country is dealing with the aftermath of the Civil War. A hundred years later, it’s Vietnam and the civil rights movement. In the 1840s and 50s, the telegraph was changing the way humans communicated; by the 1880s electric lighting was igniting a revolution of its own. Even if you don’t refer to these big-picture issues directly, understanding them—and how they shape the worldviews and daily experiences of your characters—will add depth to the setting and the people living in it.
6. Add Etymonline to your favourites bar. If you’re keen to have your characters use only period-accurate words, this website is a goldmine. My New York City copper couldn’t have a “hunch” in 1886, because that word didn’t show up (at least in that way) until 1904. But my besotted heroine was safe referring to her “crush”, since that one’s been around since 1884. If you can pick up a book on period slang, so much the better. (For 19th century New York, I recommend The City in Slang: New York Life and Popular Speech by Irving Lewis Allen.)
7. Grab a guidebook. Credit for this one goes to Tasha Alexander, who turned me onto Baedeker guides. Think of these like a sort of historical Lonely Planet. Just like modern travel guides, they cover hotels, transport, restaurants, sightseeing, and so forth – complete with amazing details like how much things cost and what sort of clientele you’re likely to encounter in a particular establishment. My personal favourites are the warnings – places ladies shouldn’t go, for example, or gentlemen wishing to be considered respectable. Baedeker specialized in Europe; for the US, I suggest Rand McNally & Co. Admittedly, these particular ones are specific to the 19th century, but I’d be willing to bet there are analogues for earlier periods as well.
8. Find your people. One of the best things about the internet and social media is that it’s easier than ever to connect with your fellow enthusiasts. Bloggers, podcasters, Facebook groups, Pinterest boards—chances are someone out there is busily collecting exactly the sorts of resources you’re looking for. Browse their collections—and don’t be afraid to reach out, either. In my experience, when people are passionate about something, they’re only too happy to share it.
Et voila – these are my best trade secrets so far, though I’m learning all the time. I hope you find them as helpful as I did!
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to researching the various accents of Missouri, to make sure I do justice to a certain famous gentleman who figures in the next Rose Gallagher mystery. Suggestions are, of course, welcome.
Erin Lindsey has lived and worked in dozens of countries around the world, but has only ever called two places home: her native city of Calgary and her adopted hometown of New York. She is the author of the Bloodbound series of fantasy novels from Ace. Murder on Millionaires’ Row is her debut mystery. She divides her time between Calgary and Brooklyn with her husband and a pair of half-domesticated cats.